The first five verses of the second chapter (Sura Baqara) in the Qur’an read as follows:
“In the name of Allah, the most Compassionate, the most Merciful
1. Alif. Lam. Mim.
2. This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah;
3. Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them;
4. And who believe in the Revelation sent to thee, and sent before thy time, and (in their hearts) have the assurance of the Hereafter.
5. They are on (true) guidance, from their Lord, and it is these who will prosper.”
The words “Bismillah alRahman alRahim” (In the name of Allah, the most Compassionate, the most Merciful) are above every sura except the ninth sura (sura 27 verse 30 has two Bismillahs as if in compensation) and are a sign that God’s mercy presides over everything. His Lordship over all things is not due to domination by violence or subjugation but to the two forms of compassion (Rahman and Rahmin) which manifest, nurture, support, surround, and enter into all things.
Sura Fatiha (the first sura of the qur’an) uses Rahman and Rahim twice. The first time it is linked with God’s essence through its occurrence after the name “Allah” – the second time it is linked with God’s Lordship over all existence through its occurrence after the word “Rabb”.
So God, is merciful in His essence and in His interaction with the universe (that is, in His Lordship – Rabb denotes a very close relationship with the created world of existence. Rabb indicates both ownership and mastery as well as nurture and support for something that is totally dependent. The ownership is not like owning something independent of you but like ownership of something that cannot even continue to exist without you. For example, your hand is an integral part of you and is dependent on you, or an image formed consciously in your mind is dependent on you for its moment by moment existence – you are its Rabb. Allah is Rabb in a similar sense – everything is poor towards Him, dependent on Him, and He is the Rich, the Independent – so both in His essence and in His Lordship Allah is Merciful.
It is important to keep this defining quality in mind (for He, Allah, has placed it as a guard over the suras and as a precursor to them) – it is important to keep this in mind as one reads through the verses of the Qur’an many of which will speak of punishment and wrath – yet we should never forget that mercy stands over and precedent to the wrath – we should not lose or become forgetful of this context as we read and reflect on the verses.
As Imam Zain-ul-Abideen (a.s.) has said “It is astonishing that anyone perishes as he perishes given the scope and extent of God’s mercy”
Now, let’s take a brief look at the remaining verses remembering that what is said here is simply a brief and cursory look at these ayats.
These are called the Huroof-e-Muqatta’at (letters of abbreviation). These letters form part of the suras in which they occur, but interpretation of them is left alone as any interpretation that is not from the Prophet is strictly guesswork. There has been much speculation about the possible meanings of these letters but for the most part it is just that – speculation. Without a sound foundation for interpretation, there is a great possibility of mis-interpretation. Unless and until there is a firm context on which to build an interpretation anything said is largely a wild guess.
2. Thalika alkitabu la rayba feehi hudan lilmuttaqeena
“That is the book, in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who are muttaqi (truly conscious, pious)”
Literally “Thalika alkitabu” means “That is the book”. Thalika is used perhaps to indicate reverence and respect for an object that is near physically but elevated in status.
Here it is made clear in a single powerful statement, that this book has no doubt in it. In one bold statement we are told how we should approach and regard this revelation, this guidance which has come down to us.
The concept of a book is one of the key concepts expounded in the Qur’an and hadith. In many places the qur’an speaks of a book or books. For example, the Jews and the Christians are “people of the book”, the revelation sent down is called a clarifying book, then there is reference to the mother of the book which is with God, the universe (and all existence) is referred to as a book), and the human soul (nafs) is referred to as a book.
So book has several connotations:
– revelation in general and the Qur’an in particular
– the book of the Universe or existence (Kitab al-tawkeeni)
– Mother of the book – which is in Allah’s presence
– the book of our life – our actions – our substance – our true form – what we are, of our soul
Each of us is also busy writing the book of our lives and after we die these books will be measured against the book of the Qur’an. And depending on how closely (or not) the book of our life corresponds to the book of Allah, we will receive our books (these are books delivering judgment on the content of our souls) in our right hand (if we were successful), our left hand (if we were unsuccessful), or behind our backs.
From this verse onward, the remainder of the Qur’an is an elaboration and clarification of the guidance mentioned in this verse and a pointer to what we ourselves must do in order to benefit from this guidance, from this book in which there is only certainty and no trace of doubt.
“…in it is guidance sure….”
There are two types of guidance – one is the innate nature, the innate guidance with which every human is endowed, the innate abilities and intelligence which can guide him through this world. But this guidance is subject to distraction, deviation and error, it’s subject to passion, to ignorance, to corruption through desire or self-interest or self-protection, it’s subject to fatigue and error and to the influences of the environment around it and the impulses within it. So the guidance of religion is meant to “grant steadfastness to our innate intelligence and abilities, to show the good and evil in relationships, in every aspect of one’s life and works. Because the revelation has been brought down through the Prophet, it is not subject to the wishes of the recipient as is our own innate intelligence. The guidance of the revelation is to keep us from error, to bring our own innate intelligence and abilities to perfection, to make it steadfast and to make our weak and tentative understanding a full and experiential understanding.
“…to those who are muttaqi (pious)”
According to Al-Mizan, piety, taqwa “is a comprehensive virtue that runs through all the ranks of the true faith.” It exists in some form or the other, to some extent or the other in all believers although the degree or rank or intensity of this piety, this taqwa varies according to the sincerity, knowledge, and station of each believer.
Allah guides them to this taqwa, and once they have taqwa, then the qur’an becomes a powerful guidance for them. “There are two guidances, one before they became muttaqi, the other after it. The first guidance made them muttaqi; and thereupon Allah raised their status by the guidance of His Book.”
The Arabic term mutaqqi refers to those who have the quality of taqwa. Taqwa in turn indicates the act of shielding oneself, of being on guard. As such it indicates a wakeful vigilance, a guarded consciousness, an alertness, awareness, a careful state of observation and readiness, a sensitivity. It is frequently translated as fear but the stress is more on vigilance rather than fear (or perhaps on a cautionary fear, a fear of letting down ones guard). So the sense is more of a consciousness, a wakeful alertness towards God along with an alertness to avoid that which would deaden this alertness. So egoism, injustice, and the myriad passions which overtake us and make us forgetful towards God must be guarded against.
The consciousness which the term taqwa encompasses is, in a way, like the consciousness of a student towards an admired teacher, or your consciousness towards a person whose word carries an extraordinary weight and importance for you, or one’s consciousness towards someone with whom they are deeply in love. When you are in the presence of such a person you are very conscious of every word you say, of every action you take, of every aspect of your behaviour and conduct. If this person even hints that they want you do something, you rush to do it, and you strive to do it in the best, most complete, and most pleasing manner. And you suppress those qualities, those tendencies and behaviours within yourself that may be displeasing towards that person. Taqwa implies a similar vigilance, awareness, and consciousness. But Allah is not visible before us as a person would be. So a further level of consciousness is necessary – we have to awaken an aspect within ourselves which will result in consciousness of that which is unseen.
As such taqwa is a loaded term and the person who has taqwa (who is mutaqqi) must be striving to overcome many internal weaknesses as these act as noise which distract from what is important and which cover over or drown out our awareness and consciousness of God. It is said that God manifests himself in the silences of the soul – so one who is always distracted and busy with the internal noise of desires, passions, distractions, egotism etc. will never be truly conscious of God. In order to listen, in order to hear, one has to be silent. If a person never stops talking, they will never be able to properly listen to another – they will be distracted with their own outpourings, their own opinions, their own ego. They will never reach a point of internal quietude (of peace) and thus that which is subtle will never be experienced. And the qur’an describes God as “The Subtle, the Aware.” One has to cease talking, and then cultivate an alert but calm attentiveness in order to see deeper than the surface. Just as the depths of a pond become invisible when the surface water is in constant rough motion, our own depths become invisible when we are in constant agitation.
Now the Qur’an tells us “He (Allah) is with you wherever you are.” (57:4) So He is not absent, He is not missing, rather our consciousness, our awareness, our taqwa of Him is absent, missing. He is with us but we are unconscious of this fact, of this incredible mercy (of Him being with us) which is waiting for us to awaken to it since we are told that He manifests His signs in the horizons and within our own souls (41:53).
3. Allatheena yu/minoona bialghaybi wayuqeemoona alssalata wamimma razaqnahum yunfiqoona
“Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them;”
Yu/minoona is derived from “al-Iman”. “Al-iman (= faith, to believe) is consolidation of belief in the heart. It is derived from al-amn (= safety, to feel safe). The believer, by his belief and faith, gains safety from doubts.”
What is iman? Although translated as faith, iman is not faith in the commonly held sense of the word. Rather it incorporates two different aspects in its definition.
The Qur’an says:” Say not that You have iman, rather say that you are Muslim, for iman has not yet entered your hearts.”
Here it is defining being a Muslim and having iman as two separate but overlapping circles. First there is the wide circle of being a Muslim, and inside that circle is the circle of iman – a smaller less inclusive circle. A circle within a circle – the relationship is like the heart within the Body, the interior within the exterior. But at the same time iman (an interior state of the heart and mind, has an external aspect. The interior belief must manifest itself in certain external behaviours. These behaviours have to do with a nobility of behaviour, a quality of behaviour, and a depth of knowledge and understanding. Iman lifts rituals and actions beyond simple external rites and obligations into a force that has a profound spiritual effect on the individual and the societal level.
Iman is not then an existentialist fact (since it had not yet entered the hearts of most Muslims) but a potential waiting to unfold. What does this mean? It means that it has no reality until it is brought into being through a.combination of forces. One force is within the human being – this is the process through which an individual shapes his being. The other force is external to him – this is the Grace and baraka of God and the guidance provided through His book. And the iman must manifest in certain external ways since “those who believe” are commanded to behave in a certain manner.
Faith has many grades and levels. Sometimes one is certain of the object of faith – through knowledge, intellect – and this certainty has its effects in action. The certainty can intensify till it enters the “heart”, the centre through which all the varied streams of consciousness pass. It can intensify further till the “belief” arises not out of a will or desire to believe but through experiencing a Reality that makes it impossible not to believe. So belief and believers are of various grades.
“Al-Ghayb” (= the unseen) is opposite of “the perceived. It is used for Allah, and His great signs, including the revelation, which is referred to in the clause, “And who believe in that which has been sent down to thee and that which was sent down before thee”. Also, it includes the hereafter. But in these verses, the beliefs in the revelation and in the hereafter have been separately mentioned. Therefore, “the unseen” has likely been used for Allah only.”
4. “and they are sure of the hereafter”
Instead of only hoping for the hereafter, they are sure of it. There is an indication here that one cannot be pious, cannot guard oneself against evil, until he is certain of the hereafter – a certainty that does not let him forget the reality of it even for a short time. This necessitates a connectedness, an awareness and consciousness that one’s own reality has an integral link with a higher, more intense level of reality and that what one does here ripples and reverbrates there. If a person experiences their own self, their own being, as conjoined with realities more vivid and essentially real than those of this world of matter, then their actions in this ephemeral world will be done with a view to the impact and effects on this deeper self. The character, traits, and actions of the person will reflect this depth and discernment.
5. “These are on guidance from their Lord and these it is that shall be the successful ones”
Such people have connected themselves in an essential and real way (not simply through emotion and vain hope) to deeper levels of existence. Guidance flows to them in the manner that signals flow to one’s hand – it moves and does what you wish without your conscious command. Guidance comes to them in the manner that images and thoughts flow from one’s mind. These people take their direction, their orientation, their course, their “color” from their Rabb – beneficial guidance flows from Him to them. They realize the insubstantiality and poverty of those who deem themselves independent and who think, speak, and act in this world on the basis of this imagined independence. They connect themselves with a Reality that is greater and more comprehensive than physical reality and thus receive a flowing and effulgent “guidance from their Rabb.”
Irshaad Hussain is a contemporary Islamic thinker and author of Islam from Inside.